During a work related trip to NYC, our conference ticket just happened to include — I’m not sure how or why — a paid excursion in the form of a “food tour” of Manhattan. Though my job only tangentially relates to the food industry, and not at all the restaurant or bakery or candy store industry, I wasn’t exactly protesting, or begging to stay behind at the hotel. No, I pretty much had this circled well in advance as a highlight of our weekend, and it did not disappoint.
After the rented bus coughs us out onto the street, we meet our tour guide up above, on the nearby High Line. It’s a decommissioned former train route whereby all the tracks were eventually ripped out, replaced by this wonderful walking park. As for her, she’s a friendly, short, blonde middle aged lady who explains that if she had not hit the jackpot on landing a rent controlled apartment, she could never afford living in Manhattan. She mentions this before we even get moving, which does have a disarming effect, making her seem more down to earth and just like one of us.
One of the first thing you notice about the High Line is this multifaceted art installation, seemingly crammed into every square inch. It’s all supposed to be united by a theme, but if so, this would be a loose one, and I’m not really connecting the dots. For example there’s a fan inside a black and white photo of an ice cream cone. But then two different signs like the one up top, advising that you may encounter nude sunbathers. Also, little gold plaques are fitted into the spaces between the walkway bricks, inscribed with stories about people who’ve walked from coast to coast. Or these red sleeping bags filled with debris from the construction of this one park, below and off to the side of this line.
Our guide is nothing else if not a fount of fun facts, which I guess she has to be in this line of work. Although it does make me wonder how often she must revise these, in light of what enters and exits pop culture, as far as being “interesting.” Tidbits like these will range from timeless to fleeting. For example, one such nugget with an arguably short half life finds us drifting past some wooden bleachers, in front of an ad painted on this brick building. She tells us that this is where Kenan Thompson filmed his short little intro segment for Saturday Night Live.
That one probably doesn’t make the cut on the all-time list. Others might, however, like when she points to where a scene was filmed in the movie Serendipity. Though I’ve never seen it, enough ooohing and ahhhing erupts from our crew to make me think this one is a keeper. Of course, it’s all relative, and personal. Chances are that the associations you make are yours and yours alone. For example, when she indicates a spot where they unloaded survivors from the Titanic, I find it an interesting coincidence (maybe?) that there’s this curiously iceberg shaped, bluish-white building next to it, which was designed by Frank Gehry. Or when, during one of the brief glimpses we have of the distant Statue Of Liberty, she offers the helpful soundbite that it’s actually located in New Jersey, which most people don’t know — as I’m smirking and thinking that this means it has a lot in common with the Giants and Jets, then, two other “New York City” institutions which call the Garden State home.
No mention is made of this Brass Monkey establishment we pass, though I would gather this surely came into existence well after the Beastie Boys made that phrase famous anyway. Or do they just carry less social currency in this city than even certain disco acts, no matter how many decades have passed since then? We receive an unexpected lesson in this, as well as what a random group of ten strangers might find highly comical and not the least bit offensive, when our tour guide points to a standalone brown building down by the Hudson, and tells us that this is where The Village People found that Native American chief character.
In response, someone snickers and observes, “it’s interesting they call this the meat packing district.”
This receives a hearty laugh from most of the peanut gallery. Not so much my tacked on joke right after this, wondering aloud, “where we might find the beer pouring district.” I thought it funny, anyway, and still do.
One other revolutionary building for its time — in fact, it still seems so, to me — is this light brown one with rounded corners and a lot of windows. They designed one end of it to be an elevator that could lift railroad cars up to whatever floor was necessary, for unloading. These days they’re just offices, however.
You may well be wondering where the actual edible treats come into play during this alleged Food Tour, and with good reason. Apart from mentioning that Martha Stewart has her offices over yonder, it’s true that almost nothing about this High Line leg even remotely touches upon that subject. But it’s an interesting, highly scenic diversion, and nobody’s complaining. As we set food on the ground, though, having successfully traversed point A to point B, our interest and salival activity escalate, helped in no small part by the meager exercise which has helped us build up an appetite.
Little stands are selling trinkets, coffee, et cetera, above Chelsea Market, but these are not on the itinerary. Our fearless leader moves at a brisk pace, and talks nearly non-stop. She draws our attention to various buildings which look like high rise apartments, until you notice there are car taillights backed up to the windows — these have all been gutted and converted to parking garages, with heavy duty elevators installed to raise and lower the vehicles, mostly for long storage.
Even here at ground level, walking regular old city blocks, we continue to pass a number of curious though highly original art exhibits. Canoes are hanging from the underside of the elevated train platform in one spot, and there are charming little shops filled with odd artifacts at seemingly every turn. As we keep moving toward our eventual destination(s), the lady leading our motley troop explains, “now, this is known as the historic district.”
Some older woman, cutting through in passing, with her animal on a leash, jokes, “…and this is a historic dog…,” as they disappear from sight.
We dip down and over to the Greenwich Village area, passing Manhattan’s only gas station that is south of 14th Street, our tour guide says. As we pause for a breather at nearby Jackson Square Park (which is nonetheless triangle shaped), she adds that the owner of that business has apparently been offered millions but is refusing to sell. It’s an odd factoid, this lack of fueling stations, and a reminder that when touring unfamiliar places, you might not even notice what’s missing from the equation. And yet now that she’s mentioned this, we can’t avoid looking everywhere, and wondering how such a glaring omission escaped our detection.
The food part of this tour only properly begins at Li-Lac Chocolates, which is Manhattan’s oldest such institution. Here she springs for a few pounds of dark chocolate, maybe more, busted up into decent sized chunks — misshapen, but uniformly amazing. After texting my wife throughout, with photos included, I eventually decide to buy her some chocolate covered nuts as well as some fudge before we forge onward.
Up next is this place called Aux Merveilleux, where we are given these wondrous, fluffy little balls I can’t even begin to describe. They are sweet, though, and like a flower of deliciousness collapsing in your mouth, comparable to nothing else I’ve eaten before yet also quite incredible. So much so that I am all but compelled to buy an additional flavor, for myself this time.
On foot some more, our captain points out spots where there clearly used to be horse stables, right off the street. She explains that during this era, they built seemingly unnecessary steps — to our modern untrained eyes, that is — up to their residences, all through here, to cut down on the smell. Maybe not the most pleasant thing to think about in the middle of a food tour, but still, some interesting info.
Our next stop is Bleecker Street Pizza. She’d already called ahead and an order is blessedly awaiting for us when we arrive. A tiny place, yet we somehow manage to grab seats, and enjoy a huge slice of Nonna Maria on paper plates. This incredibly tasty gem won best in NYC on Food Network three years in a row. While scarfing down the grub, we learn that this place makes what they make, and when they run out, that’s it for the day — and that it’s the only “by the slice” place she’s ever seen that sells out like this. Also, we absorb a tutorial in how New York City pizza is better specifically because of the water here. It has no limestone, which changes everything.
Nonna Maria slice at Bleecker Street Pizza
After this, we hit a shop called Bantam Bagels. This establishment specializes in little bagel bombs, now, filled with cheese, and while the “everything” flavor is a little too oniony for my liking, the French toast one is awesome. I would bet good money most of the other varieties are, too. This place was actually mentioned once by Oprah as among her favorites, and they were apparently on some sort of popular “venture capital funding” type TV show. As of our visit this was the only location, but they won that competition, and are planning to go nationwide.
With our bellies full, a more meandering, food-free, historical stroll follows. We find ourselves in a small neighborhood with a surprisingly rich history. Earlier in the tour, we’d already seen the bar where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, and now, on this seemingly unassuming street — Bedford — there’s this white block building, smooth, with black doors, that is also much more notable than one might suppose. This used to be Chumley’s, where other drunken writers of that era would cavort, and is allegedly, according to some sources, where the phrase “86” was coined, owing to its address (and actually, when I Google this later, this spot is the image at the top of the Wikipedia page).
I think they used to 86 the drunks from here
But now we’re staring up at a taller and much more familiar looking exterior that nonetheless takes a minute to place. Most of us figure it out right about when our guide (it’s funny, I’d been thinking early on that she looks like a Nancy, and her name turned out to be…Nancy, which is one of only two or three times this has ever happened to me, guessing correctly, and probably the weirdest) finally blurts out the answer: oh right, this was the outside shot of the apartment they were always using in Friends. I inquire about the Seinfeld building, another show about the Big Apple which was actually filmed in L.A., but Nancy says this one is unfortunately clear across town.
I’ll be there for…your bogus establishing shots
From here, we backtrack down the same road, and on the opposite side she points out the oldest house in the Village, at 77 Bedford, which is right next door to the smallest house in the Village. Cary Grant used to live at the latter, a three room matchbox that recently sold for $3 million, or in other words a million per room.
A couple more food establishments await, now that we’ve somewhat worked up an appetite again. Faicco’s Italian Specialties is the first of these. While Nancy spends a fairly extensive amount of time in line on our behalf, at least 15 minutes, a couple of us check out this streetside vendor selling vinyl albums on the sidewalk. I don’t buy anything, mostly because I don’t feel like carrying it, but Steve, this middle aged guy from a Spokane, WA store, he picks up the first Boston LP for his son, who has recently gotten into them.
Then Nancy emerges with these Italian sub type sandwiches which contain about the most exquisite meats I’ve ever had in my life. Awesome. This seems as good a time as any to tell her she’s been a terrific tour guide, and she gives me her card.
We have some dessert at one final place to cap off the experience, though by now I’m too overwhelmed and exhausted to even catch its name. Here I buy some cannoli for my wife, with no need to even inquire about this one, while other people in our crew pay out of pocket for an ice cream cone. Finally Nancy asks if anyone in our party wants all this leftover dark chocolate she still has in this baggie, leftovers from Li-Lac. When nobody else speaks up, I raise my hand and say sure, I’ll take it.
As the chartened bus returns to this very location to scoop us up, most of us collapse in our seats, slouching yet amped enough to chatter extensively about what we’ve just experienced. Otherwise unable to even think about food for the next little while, though, chugging toward the hotel where we will eventually collapse. But when I am able to ponder this topic again, it brings a smile to the lips to consider I will have a couple pounds of chocolate in my room to complement this remembrance process. And that, upon turning my mind to these matters, I will also be recommending a tour like this to everyone I subsequently meet.